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Will Guantánamo close on time?

Halfway to President Obama’s deadline, basic aspects of the closure are undecided.

By Staff writer / July 21, 2009

Detainees talk inside the open-air yard at the Camp 4 detention facility at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base in Cuba, May 31.

Brennan Linsley/REUTERS/Pool

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President Obama's pledge to close the US terrorism prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by January is looking increasingly tenuous.

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Roadblocks include a congressional prohibition against transferring detainees to the United States and continuing difficulty finding countries willing to accept men who were once labeled "the worst of the worst."

In addition, Congress and the White House are working on more changes to the controversial on again, off again military commission process to try the detainees.

With many hurdles and no breakthroughs on the horizon, analysts now question whether the prison camp can close on time.

"It is very easy to say you'd like to close Guantánamo; it is hard to actually get it done," says Matthew Waxman, a Columbia Law School professor and former deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs in the Bush administration. "I am skeptical – at least as of now - that the Obama administration will be able to meet its own deadline."

In his first major act as president, Mr. Obama ordered Guantánamo closed by January 2010. But with six months left in the year-long transition, officials appear still undecided on basic aspects of the closure.

For example, the Pentagon's general counsel was unable to say during recent Senate testimony whether military commission trials would be conducted at Guantánamo or somewhere else after the January deadline.

Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, was asked how the administration planned to "process" the 229 detainees at Guantánamo through trials or other procedures by year's end.

"You are correct; you can't prosecute some significant subset of 229 people before January," Mr. Johnson testified. "Those that we think are prosecutable and should be detained, we will continue to detain, whether it's at Guantánamo or someplace else."

Congress has asked the administration for a detailed closure plan, and last month lawmakers set that requirement into law. A presidential task force is expected to issue a report on the closure later in July.

The task force is assessing the security threat posed by each detainee and gauging which detainees are suited for transfer to other countries, which of them can be placed on trial in federal court in the US, and which will be prosecuted by a military commission. In addition, the administration acknowledges that some detainees will continue to be held indefinitely without charge as enemy belligerents after being deemed by the Obama administration as too dangerous to release.

In his Senate testimony, Johnson said detainee assessments would be completed before the end of the year.